Smash Pages Q&A: Vito Delsante on ‘The Purple Heart’

The ‘Stray’ writer discusses his contribution to the New Brooklyn Universe.

Vito Delsante has been writing comics for years, and he’s had success with stories in comics that range from Batman Adventures to Savage Tales to Scooby Doo to Superman. But recently though Delsante has been putting out his best work in a pair of projects. One of them is Stray, the story of a retired sidekick who returns to the hero game whose new solo series from Action Labs kicks off in September.

Perhaps his biggest project, though, is The Purple Heart, which is part of the New Brooklyn Universe spearheaded by Dean Haspiel, a shared universe that also includes The Red Hook and The Brooklynite and the upcoming War Cry, which launches in the fall. The weekly webcomic that Delsante is making with Ricardo Venancio wraps up this week, and Delsante spoke about working in a shared universe, and crafting a story very different from The Red Hook about Brooklyn’s Silver Surfer-like hero.

Who is the Purple Heart?

The Purple Heart is Isaiah “Zeke” Nelson. He’s a Brooklyn kid who never really appreciated Brooklyn. You know the type? The kind that thinks the grass is greener on the other side? He tried to get out of Brooklyn with sports (didn’t work), rapping (didn’t work) and eventually, the military (it worked too well). So, after serving his time in the military, he realizes that he kind of wants to contradict Thomas Wolfe; he wants to go home again. But home is going through a little bit of a metamorphosis. His home is changing, and it requires him to change with it.

For people who have not heard of New Brooklyn, what is it, and how does this character fit in to it and connect to The Red Hook?

You can answer this a few ways, so let me try to give you a comprehensive answer. Among ourselves – Dean, Ricardo, Shamus, Jason, Seth before he passed, and Tom, our editor – we refer to it as “The New Brooklyn Universe.” There was a concerted effort, once Dean and Seth put the initial idea together, to make it a contained yet shared universe. Something that readers would never really be able to put together is that I was working on “Actionverse” for Action Lab at the same time that Dean, Seth and I were putting together the New Brooklyn Universe for LINEWebtoon. And so, I was kind of neck deep in the idea of shared universes. And the three of us, while getting The Red Hook, The Brooklynite, and The Purple Heart together separately, made a few comments to each other and made a few suggestions on how to make this a cohesive idea – a shared universe. So, behind the scenes, we were actively interested in seeing a world that existed explicitly within the 70-some-odd miles that Brooklyn encompasses. When we put pen to paper, and started to actively flesh the worlds out – and keep in mind, by this point, Seth had passed away– you see, comics are generally created in a vacuum, so you don’t get to work 100% collaboratively. Ricardo lives in Portugal. I’m currently in Pittsburgh. Our studio broke up over time and we were basically creating these titles without each other, physically. And me, I love seeing cameos, things that will give you a sense of the scope, so I started writing that stuff into the script. There’s a scene where the Heart of Brooklyn is talking to Zeke and we see the people of Brooklyn and it includes The Red Hook, The Brooklynite, Aquaria (from Adam McGovern) and, weirdly, Dean. Because Dean IS Brooklyn to me. So, fitting Isaiah in that universe – keep in mind, he’s a Navy UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) Frogman. He has no sense of duty to the borough until it gives it (forces it, really) to him. He’s made the avatar of Brooklyn because, like Brooklyn, his heart is broken.

People won’t believe this, but The Purple Heart is really a romance comic under superhero clothing.

It’s hard to say, really. I know that Dean has a different answer, but I feel like there were a few things that led to me being a part of the New Brooklyn Universe. First, there was a lunch that Dean, Seth and I had at a Subway, where Dean and I started to first put together who the Purple Heart was, but that character is so different from what Isaiah is now that it’s almost a different character altogether. Sometime after the white flags appeared on the Brooklyn Bridge, I joined Hang Dai studios, and the key to that is the fact that I was there to take up Seth’s spot because he was in the hospital dealing with leukemia and, well, my friends needed help paying for their studio. It was assumed that Seth would rejoin us at some point, so what Dean and I would do, I was always in the studio earlier than most of the artists, so I would be there when Dean showed up. Dean would put Seth on speakerphone and the three of us would just talk among ourselves. At first, I think they would just ask me, “Hey, what do you think of this idea?” and then it became, “What would you bring to this concept?” It was organic, you know? More organic than I think me retelling it can convey.

How did you and Ricardo start working together?

I’m not sure! I know that I did this 30 Character in 30 Days Challenge that Tyler Vogel created, and I put all the characters in the public domain. Right after that, I found out that HeroMachine, this kind of character design Flash app, had these rules for usage that stated that because you’re using their intellectual property to create YOUR intellectual property, that they had ownership of the art, but you retained ownership of the character, or something along those lines. So, I put a call out to my Facebook friends and asked if anyone would help me to render these characters in a way that would circumvent HeroMachine’s caveat because I was dedicated to the idea of putting these characters in the creative commons. I’m not sure how we connected or who we connected through on Facebook, but Ricardo volunteered to help me with a few. Sometime after NYCC 2013, Ricardo and I had lunch with our friends, Caleb Monroe and Alejandro Bruzzese – and my daughter, who was only eight months! In the middle of that lunch, Ricardo, Alejandro and I resolved to work on something together. That became an eight page story for a Nine Inch Nails anthology that never made the book – less said the better, but you can read it for free here. But, that began our sequential relationship.

You establish early on that this is not The Red Hook. It doesn’t look or feel like that comic. You had a very slow burn. Talk a little about why you decided to write the first four chapters the way you did, taking your time before getting into the heart of the narrative – no pun intended.

Well, it also goes back behind the scenes. Dean, being so influenced by Kirby, made a Silver Age book in The Red Hook. At some point, during the writing of The Purple Heart, I realized that I was writing a Bronze Age story in the vein of Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin. Kind of cosmic, very introspective. We’ve always described the Purple Heart as our Silver Surfer. And so, Ricardo and I were given the opportunity to fill in the blanks that arose in The Red Hook. Dean starts his book exactly one year after “The Great Secession.” And we – Ricardo and I – wanted to give a little insight into what happened in that year. I can’t say for sure that Sam (The Red Hook) is completely unaffected by the Heart of Brooklyn – I can’t say for sure that Jake is or isn’t, either – and so you get a lot of disparate elements, giving each character, and title, a unique fit into a grand narrative. I say this because it’s important to view the Heart of Brooklyn as a separate character, as the second lead and if that’s the case, you have to introduce her in a way that gives the reader insight into who/what she is.

When you say that The Purple Heart is like the Silver Surfer, what does that mean to you? I’m sure there are people who can identify the character, but may not know the work of Starlin and Englehart and what that implies.

I think what we’re referring to is the introspective nature of the character. Surfer had this messianic role, but he was always so inside his own head. There were so many thought balloons! But seriously, he wasn’t a real fighter; the action was sparse, because I think the nature of the character – being this alien with a cosmic power – was to reflect and make statements about us, about Earthlings. Isaiah is cut from a similar cloth; he’s an avatar for an abstract construct – the heart of a city. The Heart of Brooklyn is almost like Galactus, in that it gives Isaiah a purpose, it gives him an imperative. It tells him, “Go,” and he goes. We say in one of the chapters that Brooklyn has chosen heroes; Isaiah isn’t meant to be one of them. Isaiah has a greater purpose; Isaiah has to heal the city. That’s what we’re really responding to; the idea of being the “Jesus of the saga.”

I like the Silver Age-Bronze Age comparison between Purple Heart and Red Hook but you are more interested in detailing more about how this new Brooklyn works in a way that the Red Hook didn’t. The Purple Heart is more of a cosmic hero but he’s also more concerned with people and with street life than the Red Hook who is off doing his own thing. Which is an interesting balance.

That’s true, but I think that Sam, the Red Hook, is one of those people on the street. He’s not your typical Brooklynite – I’m not sure if I meant that pun or not – in that he has this calling. He’s a super-crook that “breaks good” after his meeting with the Green Point. There’s a lot that Sam and Isaiah have in common; they were chosen, for one, and they were chosen by these cosmic, almost ethereal beings to do something greater than they ever thought they were capable of. Sam, I think, embraces it to an extent. It’s uncomfortable, sure. It almost kills him, but I think by the time we end his story, he’s accepted more than he’s rejecting. Isaiah is the opposite. He struggles with who he is now, with who he’s become, because he’s still a work in progress. He’s been through a cataclysm, he’s been through war. His needs are so, so simple; he wants to go home. Home is Brooklyn, the place he ran away from. It – Brooklyn – makes a deal with him, in a way; you help me, I’ll help you. Does he embrace his new role as quickly as Sam? Time will tell.

You’ve written comics before, but the Webtoons layout is very particular. Talk a little about how you and Ricardo work together and how you’re thinking about the pages and chapters as you go.

I’ll be completely honest; Ricardo is the whiz kid of the layout. When I wrote the script, it was months before we had any real art, and so, I wrote like I always write; for the printed page. And if you look at a lot of our early comments from the readers, you’ll see a lot of “TOO SHORT!” comments. And that’s because I’m generally sparse in my scripts, giving room for the art to breathe. And what works best in the Webtoon format is multiple/high panel counts. Because you’re reading it at the flick of a thumb. It’s free, sure, but you invest time into it and you want to get your money’s worth. So, going forward from that initial learning curve, we’ve found ways – HE, I should say – to make it a little more art intensive. Longer scroll time, in a sense.

The Red Hook alluded to what happened when Brooklyn pulled away, but you show that it wasn’t just some poetic image, but a violent act where people die, where things were destroyed. Why was that the start of the book? Why was that key?

It’s probably wrapped up in a few different thoughts. The initial idea that Dean and Seth offered was simply, “What if Brooklyn gave up?” and it’s based on this weird performance art stunt that happened in 2014. And from there, you ask questions. Why? How? And I had done this webcomic a while ago called STUCK with Tom Williams and the idea of it was to see the reactions of a group of people “stuck” on a subway car when disaster hits. Part of the idea of Brooklyn seceding comes from that book (although, in STUCK, it was to be revealed to be a monster attack) and, as someone that was in New York when the September 11th attacks happened, disaster isn’t pretty. So, we started the story with this calm, but unsettled feeling of Isaiah being home but not feeling like he was. Then we take home away from him, right out from under his feet. It’s probably not the nicest of ways to start his heroes journey, but I think the Joseph Campbell fans will see some benefits to it.

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard – and likely made – plenty of jokes about what being the avatar of Brooklyn entails. Pickling lots of vegetables, old timey mustaches, putting birds on things, etc. But what does that mean and how are you trying to delve into this over the course of the series?

I don’t know. [laughs] I mean, Brooklyn to me is so many things. It’s Hang Dai Studios, where Dean and I and Christa Cassano, Joe Infurnari, Swifty Lang, Greg Benton and Jonathan Allen. It’s the flea markets my wife and sister used to go to on the weekends. It’s Prospect Park. It’s bagels from the one deli I used to go to. Pizza. And this weird sense of community I got whenever I walked anywhere. We made the decision early on that in the wake of the secession, the currency is art. It’s music. It’s artisanship and auteurship. That’s what Brooklyn inspires. When I was a kid, the saying about New York City was, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,” and I think that a lot of folks got rejected by the Broadway and Hollywood machine and moved to Brooklyn to create new spaces. And I think we’re bringing that into New Brooklyn. Specifically that sense of art and community.

For people who might be wondering, what is The Purple Heart’s relationship to The Brooklynite and the Red Hook and to Dean’s upcoming War Cry?

There’s a scene where Isaiah meets the Red Hook that I don’t want to spoil.

Dean is following up The Red Hook with War Cry this fall. Do you have plans or ideas for more with Zeke or another series after you wrap The Purple Heart?

I don’t know. I mean, I’d love to do a second season, if all the stars were aligned properly. Dean and I have discussed stories, spinoffs and sequels, but I think that, since it took so long to get here, to this finish line, it’s best to step away for a little while.

Although, once readers see the last panel, they’re going to want more.

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